Friday 23 August 2019

'We are the living riposte to Mladic': how a couple found love through war

For the victims of Serbian general Ratko Mladic, the painful memories of the Bosnian conflict will never go away

ORDEAL: Mirza and Bronagh met after he left Sarajevo Photo: David Conachy
ORDEAL: Mirza and Bronagh met after he left Sarajevo Photo: David Conachy
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

When Ratko Mladic was sentenced to life imprisonment at the Hague last week, the news was met with scenes of jubilation in Bosnia. CNN showed pictures of old women in headscarves dancing in the street.

The Serbian general - the so-called Butcher of Bosnia - will never leave prison now and his conviction closes another violent chapter for Europe. The UN called it "a triumph for justice", and Ireland could claim unusual credit; the Department of Foreign Affairs, along with the Dutch themselves, were the primary diplomatic drivers behind the prosecution. Serbia was notably slow in handing over its war criminals but, according to activists here, our Foreign Affairs Committee made cooperation with the Hague a condition of approving the country's ongoing accession to the EU.

LIFE SENTENCE: Former Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladic was jailed for genocide, and crimes against humanity
LIFE SENTENCE: Former Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladic was jailed for genocide, and crimes against humanity

While the verdict was welcomed by the Bosnian community in Ireland, there was little real rejoicing. For Mirza Catibuic (50), who has lived here with his Irish wife, Bronagh, and their children for more than two decades now, the news was bittersweet.

"Of course, it is a great thing that Mladic faced justice but he will live the rest of his life, even if it is in prison. When I heard the verdict I thought of what he and people like him did to my country, my family, me. My brother Zlatan was killed in the war. The fact is that the conviction of Mladic won't bring him back. The physical and psychological consequences of the war are still going on for Bosnian people - I am just one of many."

Mirza had been a pharmacist in Sarajevo before the war began. "In May 1992, the Serbian army tried to enter Sarajevo and were prevented, meaning they attacked and we were trapped inside. The whole place was blockaded. By June, all connections were lost. That was when we realised that there was no way out. The city is situated in a valley, surrounded by mountains all around. You could say it's the perfect place to have a siege."

Mirza worked in a hospital and he saw the casualties being brought in after shelling. "Kids would hear it going silent and want to go out and play and they would be targeted by paramilitaries. They would bomb market places. In February 1994, there was a terrible attack in a market place. Imagine an area like Henry Street - imagine someone throwing a grenade into the middle of that."

Mirza's face and upper body were injured in another attack on the hospital. He waited months to be evacuated and eventually got a notification to say "in one hour be in the main hospital, you are being evacuated but just you".

"I was thinking 'yes I am finally getting out'", he explains. "But my mother was left in the house. I had such mixed feelings. The moment they took me away from the hospital and I saw the faces of my family I had regrets. But you have to understand that at that point we didn't care if we were killed just to end this terrible suffering. We had lost all hope."

Mirza was brought to a refugee camp in Germany and arrived here in Ireland in February 1994. Soon afterwards, he had surgery on his eye, although doctors were ultimately not able to save his sight in one eye. Ireland would change the course of his life, however. During his first few months here he met a young activist, Bronagh Finnegan, who was studying English at Trinity College. She had grown up in what she calls the ''borderland'' of South Armagh and her experience of The Troubles made her sensitive to the horrors of Bosnia.

Twenty-three years ago this month, Bronagh attended a candlelight vigil in Dublin City Centre to raise awareness of the humanitarian plight of the war victims. "Well, I thought we were raising awareness," Bronagh adds dryly. "But some people were just checking out the talent. Call it patriotic duty." They met again at a party organised by supporters of the solidarity movement, and Bronagh, who already had a good command of Bosnian (she is now fluent) heard Mirza slagging off Irish food. "I went very red and was trying to fix what I said," he recalls. "She said she wanted to learn a few more words of the language. We met later in town that week, there was an exchange of dictionaries. We said we'd meet in the New Year." Early the following year Mirza's brother Zlatan was killed by sniper fire and Bronagh didn't know if she should reach out in condolence. On the advice of a friend she did so, and Mirza, eager for a distraction from his grief, was thrilled to hear from her. St Patrick's Day 1995 was their first public outing as a couple.

The Dayton Peace Agreement was signed in late 1995 and that year Bronagh and Mirza were on the first charter flight from Dublin to Split. "There was so much destruction, it was getting bright as we came into Sarajevo", Bronagh recalls. "And I'll never forget seeing the press building - which was where the news came out of during the war. It was like a shell. The apartment buildings were dreadfully damaged."

The reunion with Mirza's family was also an introduction for Bronagh. "It was grief and happiness, everything together", Mirza recalls. "The life had stopped for us on January 6, 1995 when my brother was killed. When we came there was some brightness for my parents. There were so many unspoken things. I could not even mention my brother. My sister-in-law told me on the day they told my mother about my brother's death she forever lost her smile, but when we came she smiled, just for a moment."

Though Mirza is Muslim and Bronagh is Catholic, neither of them converted to the other's religion - and they were married in 1998. They went on to have three girls together, Ayumi (17), Selma (14) and Leyla (10). The children have been raised with both faiths and speaking both languages - English and Bosnian. Mirza would continue his career as a pharmacist here, while Bronagh became a lecturer and academic, specialising in linguistics. The shadows cast by the war were long, however. "You can see the physical wounds of war", Bronagh explains. "But when refugees come here, the psychological wounds they carry are often catastrophic.."

The couple share a black sense of humour about the horror that brought them together. "I used to say to him that it only took a war and Bill Clinton to persuade him to move out of his mother's house", Bronagh says, smiling. "Even through the most terrible times, through war, humanity prevails and persists and that is the victory. They wanted to exterminate a population but they didn't succeed. They wanted us to teach our children to hate, but we didn't. And that's what I really felt when I saw the verdict this week: we are the living riposte to Mladic."

Sunday Independent

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